It was an October evening in Quebec City, about two months ago. Team USA had just won the first game of the Can-Am series, a total of six games to be played between the two women’s hockey powers.
The score was 5-2. The Americans were on a high, but cautious. They had their roster. It was all about fine-tuning. Making sure they peaked at the right time.
Team USA head coach Robb Stauber was a man who was cautiously optimistic. Happy with his team’s performance - their seventh straight win at World Championships and centralization dating back to the 2015 Worlds - but knew they couldn’t peak too soon.
Then Canadian head coach Laura Schuler came in. She was upset. She called the loss “an embarrassment to the country.” She said her team was awful. She was combative towards questions about the team’s goaltending. There was uncertainty. They still had five cuts to make and Shannon Szabados had a mysterious ailment that was keeping her from playing.
Three days later, Canada came back strong in Boston with a 5-1 win. Just three days after that, Team USA added Cayla Barnes to the roster. A couple of American players had been banged up and the Four Nations Cup was looming. It didn’t raise too many alarms. But Team USA’s ‘final’ roster suddenly wasn’t final.
The Americans continued to dominate, winning both matchups at the Four Nations Cup against Canada, 4-2 in the round robin and 5-1 in the Gold Medal game on November 12, cementing the Americans as the favorites they were expected to be at the Olympics. They had won all three World Championships since the Olympics, after all.
On November 20, Canada made their first two cuts from their roster leaving them with 26 players. Just eight days later, there were more shockwaves: the Americans added Haley Skarupa and Sidney Morin to the roster. Suddenly both teams had three cuts to make. One planned to be there all along, the other expanding their roster with a month to go before the planned Olympic roster announcement.
December started with two more games. Canada fell behind in Minnesota. But they came on strong after falling behind. The forwards started helping the defence breaking out and Canada looked different. Late in the second period, Marie-Philip Poulin (who else?) tied the game. It went into overtime and Brianne Jenner scored the overtime winner. Shannon Szabados returned to get the win.
But it was what the Canadians said after the game that intrigued me at the time, and then snowballed.
“We believe in this group and we believe that we can win any given night no matter the opponent; it was great to prove that to ourselves tonight,” Jenner said.
Poulin said the game was good for their confidence. Schuler mentioned that she liked the “energy shift”. The Canadians needed a win against the Americans. Losing three of four took its toll on the group.
Canada would win the next three games. After a 2-0 Canada win, Team USA made their first cut, releasing Annie Pankowski - a player who was named to the initial roster. Then, last week, Canada won two more games, 3-1 in San Jose and then in Edmonton 2-1 in overtime.
Suddenly Canada was a different team. They were playing confident.
Oh, how the tables have turned.
I’m not going to sit here and say that Canada will definitely win a gold medal in South Korea. But the winds around both teams have changed.
Reports indicate that Team USA have cut Alex Carpenter and Megan Bozek to finalize their roster. Two players who were both named to the original roster and considered near-locks. Suddenly it’s the Americans who have questions popping up. Who’s playing what position? Why did they add players to the roster? Who’s making the official final roster?
Canada still has questions surrounding them. They are expected to name their final roster on Friday. Their defense is suspect outside of their top three. Their bottom six has been a revolving door with no player really staking a claim there, making the final announcement a mystery.
But I feel a lot better about Canada’s chances than I did a month ago. We may not look at the comeback win in Minnesota as a turning point, but right now it’s hard not to.
I don’t think the result of any one game changed Team USA’s philosophy on its own, but them changing course mixed with losses against their biggest rivals isn’t the best note to go into the Olympics on.
Of course, four years ago it was Canada dealing with multiple injuries and the mysterious firing of their head coach. They still won gold.
Both teams don’t want to peak now. They want to peak in February. In two months, all this will be window dressing. But as we speak, the battle looks a lot closer than it did a month ago.